PSAs for the Players Championship have been bombarding the airwaves for months. The PGA Tour assembled all of its big guns, from Tiger to Rory to Adam Scott to tout the Tour’s marquee event, played on its most drama-inducing course. Over and over, we’re treated to images of fist-pumping and heart-clutching moments on the course’s closing holes. But is Pete Dye’s TPC Sawgrass Players Stadium Course really that good? Some Top 100 course rankings — and many players — say no. I say yes. Thirty-three years after its debut as the PGA Tour’s grandest stage, it remains a truly elite course and one of the game’s ultimate tournament tests.
I revisited this topic over a recent breakfast meeting with architect Brian Curley. Best known for his work at China’s Mission Hills on behalf of his Schmidt-Curley design firm, Curley cut his teeth in the business in the 1980s, working alongside Dye on Landmark Golf projects such as PGA West and the Ocean Course at Kiawah. I came away more convinced than ever that Dye’s reclaimed North Florida swamp was the work of a genius.
Of all the courses the PGA Tour visits each year, the final few holes at TPC Sawgrass are the most recognizable and distinct, even more so than Augusta National’s. The final stretch can see someone relinquish a big lead or come storming from behind with dramatic swings in scores. The par-5, par-3, par-4 finish is perfect, with a reachable 5, a watery 3 and a long, tough par-4 closer. This yields the best odds to see someone catch up or throw up.
The small greens reward good shots and punish poor shots. The out-of-play areas are flat, hard-packed sand, which allows for a multitude of recovery options. The tall pines create narrow corridors, but also allow room for heroic recoveries. And in terms of design chops, Dye carved out 18 distinctive and memorable holes, despite flat terrain, with only minor elevation changes and a repetitive frame of mostly pines.
What really impresses is the design variety. The layout is a textbook for balancing power with finesse, where strategy and aesthetics merge in unprecedented fashion. Holes dogleg this way and that in equal measure. You have brilliant short par-4s, such as the 384-yard 4th and the 358-yard 12th, where thoughtful placement, angle of attack and recognition of the green contours are paramount. You’ll encounter one brutishly long par-3, the 237-yard 8th, two middle distance one-shotters and the tiny, terror-filled 17th. All four par-3s play in different directions. With the par-5s, again, there’s the massive 9th, two mid-sized efforts at 2 and 11 and a very reachable, if scary at the 16th. With the constant change of direction in routing, the frequent winds that rip through Sawgrass rarely affect play in the same way on back-to-back holes. What this adds up to is a spread that favors no particular type of golfer. Nearly every hole offers thought-provoking risk-reward opportunities, even with the advancements in equipment. Overall, TPC Sawgrass has held up well to the club and ball revolutions.
Less obvious design touches abound as well that serve to elevate Sawgrass’ stature, even as it leads to a degree of discomfort for players. The railroad ties and hard edges to sand and water hazards create an intimidation factor that exceeds the actual danger. It sure raises the tension levels, and we know what tightened grip pressure does to a golf swing.
Bunkers of every classification, from nasty deep pots to long, boxy waste types to rough-choked grassy hollows seem to overwhelm the eye. On courses where every bunker looks the same, it spawns a familiarity that can relax you, as in the notion that if you’ve been in one, you’ll have nothing to fear by landing in any other. Not here.
Let’s not overlook Dye’s brilliance in his tree groupings, grassing textures, varieties and colors and mound designs. Most of these spectator mounds, that gave rise to the notion of “Stadium Golf,” were placed on the right side of fairways and greens, so that fans could see the faces of right-handed golfers when they struck their shots. Land near or atop them and you might need to invent a baseball-type swing to get back into play.
And yes, Dye and his wife Alice gifted the world the island-green, par-3 17th, one of the sport’s most iconic holes.
Sure, there is one too many forced carries for many modern states. Yes, there’s a huge degree of artificiality, as one can hardly say that these holes fit into the natural terrain. No matter. Each hole is different from the one that came before it, and each one is memorable. The shot demands and degree of thinking required are top-tier. That, in my eyes, makes TPC Sawgrass’ Players Stadium a great course.